Wednesday, 15 June 2022

Luce en de rots (Britt Raes, 2022)

In less than three months' time, this incarnation of Holland Focus will reach its fifth anniversary, and one of the very first films to be featured on the site was Britt Raes' Catherine; if you haven't already seen it, this excellent, moving short can be viewed in its entirety—and for free—by clicking here.  When it was reviewed here, Catherine was screening as part of the 2017 London Film Festival, which also featured Daan Bakker's portmanteau movie Quality Time; Bakker's film was scored by Bram Meindersma, who composed the wonderfully atmospheric music for Britt Raes' new film, Luce and the Rock (Luce en de rots).  Meindersma can do more than just compose, however: he's also responsible for Luce and the Rock's sound design, and he voiced the main character in what was Quality Time's first, best and funniest segment.

In addition to the presence of Meindersma, Luce and the Rock also features a credit for Imge Özbilge, whose fine short #21XOXO was chosen for the 2019 London Film Festival; for a small rental fee, you can view Özbilge's film here.  With any luck, Luce and the Rock will be among the selections for the 2022 London Film Festival, but it has already screened at this year's Berlinale—where it played as part of the Generations strand and received a special mention—as well as enjoying an outing at Brussels' Anima festival, where it picked up the Best Belgian Short Film award.  Luce and the Rock is virtually the same length as Catherine, and as such it has some versatility: it could either work as part of a larger programme of shorts, or play before a feature film—as was the case when Catherine screened with Michel Ocelot's Ivan Tsarevitch and the Changing Princess.

Luce and the Rock begins with the girl of the title living a happy, tranquil life in the small village where she resides with her mother.  There are a number of other equally happy villagers, all of whom enjoy life in their cute little houses.  There's little for anyone in the village to worry about, and the biggest inconvenience for Luce is that she's not too fond of the dark; thankfully, a glowstick is always on hand to help Luce get through the nights.  The villagers' idyll is suddenly shattered when a gigantic rock creature quite literally rolls into town, in the process reducing most of the little blue homes to rubble.  Naturally, nobody is very pleased with this development, and the uninvited guest soon becomes a target of the villagers' anger; it doesn't help matters that the creature oozes an unappealing yellow gloop.  While Luce is just as annoyed as the rest of the village's population, her stance softens once she spends some time with this maladroit but charming visitor.

Like its predecessor, Luce and the Rock features both top-drawer animation and a useful message, with its title characters' interactions illustrating how friendships can blossom despite—ahem—rocky beginnings; the film also makes a valuable point regarding inclusivity, and how differences need not form a barrier to getting along with others.  Luce and the Rock greatly benefits from Britt Raes' terrific use of colour, which lends a real warmth to both the characters and their settings, and it's a real pity when our time in this magical world comes to an end; there's a lot packed into the 13 minutes, and it's likely that the film will withstand repeated viewings.  Catherine was always going to be a tough film to follow, but Luce and the Rock is a very worthy successor to that superb feline-themed film; let's hope we don't have to wait another five years to find out what Britt Raes does next. 

Darren Arnold

Wednesday, 8 June 2022

52nd IFF Rotterdam (25/1/23–5/2/23)

International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) presents a new team line-up and structure ahead of its upcoming 52nd edition, which will take place from 25 January to 5 February 2023. Vanja Kaludjercic, Festival Director at IFFR, said: “IFFR is completely unique - our team and our programme each year are testament to our commitment to bold and thought-provoking cinema - and we’re excited to be entering into a new chapter in our history. This year, we’ve had the challenging experience of looking at our organisation and asking difficult questions about how we become more inclusive and more sustainable for the decades to come - and as a result have made some significant changes. Now we are looking forward to delivering IFFR 2023 and beyond through a revitalised team consisting of many of our existing programmers as well as adding new voices. We can’t wait to be back in-person with audiences next year to present a line-up of surprising, challenging, and exciting cinema and visual arts.”

The selection committee for features consists of former IFFR programmers Stefan Borsos (South and South-East Asia), Michelle Carey (English speaking territories), Evgeny Gusyatinskiy (Central and Eastern Europe, Israel), Mercedes Martínez-Abarca (South and Central America, Mexico, Caribbeans), Olaf Möller (German speaking territories, Nordic countries, the Cinema Regained programme), Lyse Nsengiyumva (Sub-Saharan Africa), Olivier Pierre (French speaking territories), and Delly Shirazi (Middle-East, Northern Africa, Iran, Turkey), former Shorts programmer Koen de Rooij (Netherlands, Flanders), and new hires Rebecca De Pas (Italy, Spain, Portugal), and Kristína Aschenbrennerova (South Korea, Japan, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan).

The Shorts programme will be curated by the selection committee for shorts consisting of Rebecca De Pas, Cristina Kolozsváry-Kiss, Lyse Nsengiyumva, Ivan Ramljak, Koen de Rooij, and Leonie Woodfin. Our Rotterdam dedicated programme “RTM”, which aims to encourage Rotterdam film talent development, becomes more central to our programming and is led by Ronny Theeuwes as Head of Year-round events, Talks & Unleashed. The scouts for IFFR’s upcoming programme are: Hiromi Aihara (Japan), Robert Gray (French speaking territories), Wu Jueren (China, Hong Kong, Taiwan), Ralph McKay (North America), Ivan Ramljak (Former Yugoslav countries), and Susana Santos Rodrigues (Latin America). 

IFFR also welcomes Bianca Taal as Head of HBF, Inke Van Loocke as Head of Pro, Charlie Vermeulen as Head of Programme Operations, Alessia Acone as Manager Pro, Sara Juricic as Manager Talent. Other posts announced include: Barbara de Heer as Chief of Funding and Business Growth, Marije Stijkel as Chief of Operations, and Anne Wabeke as Head of Communications. Overall, six permanent roles in total were made redundant across the organisation as part of the restructure. IFFR’s festival strands consist of: Tiger Competition, Big Screen Competition, Tiger Shorts Competition, Bright Future, Harbour, Limelight, Cinema Regained, special programmes (retrospectives/thematic programmes), Shorts, Art Directions. Submissions open from 1 June; check out our submissions page for more details.

Source/images: IFFR

Wednesday, 25 May 2022

Vortex (Gaspar Noé, 2021)

During Christmas 2019, Gaspar Noé's festivities were cut short by a near-fatal brain haemorrhage, from which, happily, he made a full recovery.  Vortex, Noé's first feature film since his hospitalisation, can and will be viewed as both a response to that major life event and a radical shift in tone from the filmmaker.  While each Noé film from Enter the Void on has been notably tamer than its predecessor—and his latest effort is no exception to this trend—Vortex nonetheless delivers the sort of sickening punch familiar to anyone who's experienced Noé's previous work; only with this film, Noé takes the emotional route in order to serve his goal, a strategy that will almost certainly wrongfoot audiences accustomed to the director's visceral approach.  That said, the film has its writer-director's fingerprints all over it, and it could never be mistaken for the work of any other filmmaker; while Vortex sees its director cover new terrain—or at the very least, the same old ground in a new way—it's always clearly identifiable as a Noé film.   

Vortex chronicles the final days of a nameless elderly couple, played by cinematic legends Françoise Lebrun and Dario Argento (both of whose work was featured among a stack of VHS tapes glimpsed in the opening moments of Noé's Climax).  She's a retired psychiatrist—albeit one who, crucially, can still prescribe medication—while he's a writer currently working on a book about cinema and its relationship to dreams, which is exactly the sort of project one could easily imagine Noé tackling once he reaches retirement age.  Their daily routine, filled as it is with largely aimless pottering, betrays the quiet contentment of two people who have spent decades in one another's company.  Yet illness has begun to define both of their lives: he has a longstanding heart complaint, while she finds herself in the ever-tightening grip of dementia.  As she becomes more prone to erratic behaviour—wandering off without notice, leaving the gas cooker on, flushing her husband's manuscript down the toilet—he becomes irritated and concerned in roughly equal measure.  The couple have a son, recovering drug addict Stéphane (Alex Lutz), who tries his best to help, although he has many other problems to contend with, including trying to stay clean and looking after his own young child.  In a bid to make everyone's life a bit easier, Stéphane urges his parents to consider moving to a retirement home but, rather inevitably, this suggestion is dismissed out of hand.

The bulk of Vortex's already lengthy running time unfolds in split-screen, with each half of the frame devoted to one of the two protagonists; a few years ago, we'd have looked on this effect as just the latest in a long line of gimmicks employed by the ever-mischievous Noé, but here it feels like a truly vital component, one that firmly underlines the isolation experienced by both of the main characters.  In hindsight, it's easy to see how Noé and his regular cinematographer Benoît Debie used the medium-length Lux Æterna, with its liberal use of side-by-side images, as a testing ground for the much more ambitious Vortex, a film that proves quite demanding for the viewer when it comes to selecting what to focus on at any given moment.  As with Lux Æterna, much of what goes on in Vortex isn't particularly consequential, yet the film manages to instil a real sense of anxiety, one that's ultimately justified as the exquisitely desolate story plays out to its conclusion.  Comparisons to Michael Haneke's immaculate Oscar-winner Amour are both obvious and appropriate, but there's something more recognisably human about the jagged, messy Vortex, almost as if Noé is serving as the fire to Haneke's ice.

Vortex boasts two—actually, three—beautifully-judged performances, with veteran filmmaker Argento excelling in what is a very rare turn on the other side of the camera, while Lebrun, still best known for her outstanding performance in Jean Eustache's masterpiece The Mother and the Whore, is note-perfect as the dementia victim for whom the world rapidly becomes a hostile, bewildering environment, with her eyes relaying the terror she experiences once she is no longer able to recognise faces and places.  And while he at no point encroaches on the limelight commanded by the two leads, the superb Lutz manages to make the rather hapless Stéphane a credible, sympathetic presence.  All three of the film's principal characters are caught in the vortex of the title, which sees both memories and tangible, real-world content swept away.  As Brian Molko of Placebo—Noé directed the music video for the band's "Protège-moi"—once sang, "can't stop growing old".  Or, as Noé himself put it with Irreversible's final title card, "time destroys all things".  A full 20 years on from the brutal, pitiless Irreversible, Gaspar Noé's concerns haven't changed very much—but his approach certainly has.   

Darren Arnold

Images: Wild Bunch

Wednesday, 4 May 2022

To Plant a Garden Is to Believe in Tomorrow

On today, her birthday, both the Audrey Hepburn Garden (a playground) and a bust by Dutch artist Kees Verkade will be inaugurated at the corner of Ixelles' rue de l'Arbre Bénit and rue Keyenveld - where the actress was born 93 years ago. The 1993 bust is a gift from Sean Hepburn-Ferrer to the Brussels municipality. UNICEF Ambassador Audrey Hepburn devoted her energy to defending the rights of children around the world, putting her fame at the service of the weakest and giving voice to their suffering. This playground is a reminder of the battles she fought on the behalf of children worldwide. There is a second cast of the statue in the park of the municipality of Arnhem in the Netherlands.

Symbolically, the two statues are found in the cities where she spent her childhood. The Mayor, Christos Doulkeridis, the Alderman for Green Spaces and Plantations, Audrey Lhoest, and the Alderman for Town Planning, Yves Rouyet, are happy to inaugurate Ixelles' new green space located at the intersection of Keyenveld and Arbre Bénit streets. Like the actress, discretion and elegance are combined to give life to this new green area. In June, a statue of 'Little Audrey' will be inaugurated in the garden of Le Louise Hotel Brussels - MGallery Hotel Collection, formerly Sofitel. 

Source: Rodrigue Laurent Press

Images: Rodrigue Laurent Press / Intimate Audrey

Wednesday, 27 April 2022

BFI Flare 2022: the stats

The 36th edition of BFI Flare: London LGBTQIA+ Film Festival (16-27 March), the UK’s leading LGBTQIA+ film event, closed on 27 March and celebrated being presented back at BFI Southbank after two years of being delivered online due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Overall the Festival saw 25,023 attendances across BFI Southbank and on BFI Player, with an additional 4.5k online views of BFI Flare events, which included the Festival’s Programme Launch on BFI Flare Facebook and BFI YouTube. 58% of all ticket buyers were new to BFI Flare.

Partnering for the eighth year, BFI Flare and the British Council made five LGBTQIA+ short films from the BFI Flare programme available to global audiences for the duration of the festival with the ground-breaking Five Films For Freedom. The LGBTQIA+ digital campaign attracted over three million views from around the world with figures from international content partnerships still to be counted. The project allows audiences worldwide to show solidarity with LGBTQIA+ communities living in countries where human rights are restricted and this year’s selection spanned from China, Croatia, India, Panama and the UK.

Over 12 days between 16– 27 March, BFI Flare welcomed its audiences back to its home venue with 56 feature premieres and 84 shorts screened from 42 countries. For BFI Player, 10 features premiered virtually and 6 short films were screened for free plus Five Films For Freedom.  The Festival hosted 6 World Premieres, 7 International Premieres, 1 European Premiere and 25 UK Premieres from across the features programme. BFI Flare welcomed 174 filmmakers and their teams (106 international, 68 UK-based) in person from 33 countries. Two filmmakers joined the Festival virtually. 

Particular favourites at this year’s edition included Opening Night film GIRL PICTURE, with director Alli Haapasalo presenting the film fresh from its screening in this year’s Berlinale and its World Cinema Dramatic Audience Award win at Sundance. The Closing Night world premiere of, Kevin Hegge’s feature documentary TRAMPS! celebrated the unique cross-fertilization of British art, fashion, music and film in the early 1980s, foregrounding the queer talent which came out of the London scene. Special guests included Jeffrey Hinton, Scarlett Cannon, Dave Baby, Michael Costiff, Philip Sallon, David Holah, Les Child and Princess Julia who opened the Closing Night party with a TRAMPS! inspired DJ set.

Source/images: BFI

Wednesday, 20 April 2022

Films of the New French Extremity (1–31/5/22)

The BFI have announced full details of CRUEL FLESH: FILMS OF THE NEW FRENCH EXTREMITY, a season of brutally compelling films that explore intimacy in a violent world. Running throughout May at BFI Southbank, the programme explores the unique moment in cinema history that sent shockwaves through arthouse sensibilities. This season will feature the work of filmmakers such as Claire Denis (TROUBLE EVERY DAY), François Ozon (CRIMINAL LOVERS), Leos Carax (POLA X), Marina de Van (IN MY SKIN), Lucile Hadžihalilovic (LA BOUCHE DE JEAN-PIERRE, with Hadžihalilovic attending in person), and Gaspar Noé, the latter of whom will also be subject of a special focus in May. 

FOCUS ON: GASPAR NOÉ coincides with the release of the filmmaker’s new work VORTEX (2021), and will include in person appearances from the director. The centrepiece event of the focus will be Gaspar Noé in Conversation on 10 May, during which the one-of-a-kind filmmaker will reflect upon his work so far, including VORTEX, which will be on extended run at BFI Southbank when it is released in cinemas UK-wide on 13 May. IRREVERSIBLE (2002) is built around Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci, trading on their popularity and charisma as a real-life couple to make their violent descent even more assaulting. In 2019, Noé returned to the film to tell the story in chronological order; IRREVERSIBLE: THE STRAIGHT CUT (2002) goes beyond a linear reassembling of the narrative.

Contextual events during the NEW FRENCH EXTREMITY season will including opening event SEX AND DEATH, BUT MAKE IT ARTHOUSE, a richly illustrated talk on 3 May that will introduce the key titles, filmmakers and thematic preoccupations of this distinct film movement. There will also be an online panel discussion – HORROR À LA FRANÇAISE – available for free on BFI YouTube from 11-31 May. As part of the season a four-session course running every Tuesday – CITY LIT AT THE BFI: NEW FRENCH EXTREMITY – will consider the historical, cultural, social and political context for this phenomenon and seek to examine a number of these films in detail. There will also be a NEW FRENCH EXTREMITY collection on BFI Player, available concurrently with the BFI Southbank season.

The closest thing to a comedy to be found in this programme, MAN BITES DOG (Rémy Belvaux/André Bonzel/Benoît Poelvoorde, 1992) is a Belgian mockumentary that follows a crudely charismatic serial killer who is delighted to be the subject of a documentary that will cover his thoughts on the ‘craft of murder’ and classical music. In the exceptionally creepy Belgian horror THE ORDEAL (Fabrice du Welz, 2004), a traveling entertainer becomes stranded in a remote mountain town and is taken in by an affable local, who nurtures a dangerous obsession. Without any women or music, Fabrice du Welz deliberately avoids horror clichés to make something truly strange.

Source/images: BFI

Friday, 25 March 2022

The World to Come (Mona Fastvold, 2020)

The entirety of BFI Flare's Best of Year strand will be screened on Sunday, which marks the close of this year's edition of the festival.  The strand's title is quite self-explanatory, and this roundup of highlights from the last 12 months features the likes of animated docudrama Flee and Pedro Almodóvar's Parallel Mothers—two high-profile films that have enjoyed considerable success over the past year or so.  While anything in Best of Year is likely to be worth seeing—the section also includes acclaimed prison drama Great Freedom—the real gem in the strand takes the form of Mona Fastvold's outstanding second feature The World to Come, a film that was granted the most modest of theatrical releases before landing on VOD.  In placing The World to Come in Best of Year, Flare's programmers have both recognised its greatness and provided a rare opportunity to see Fastvold's film on the big screen.  As with every film in this strand, tickets for The World to Come have sold out, but it is always worth checking for any returns that may become available—or you can rent (or buy) the film from iTunes.

Set in the mid-19th century, The World to Come focuses on the hard, isolated and cheerless lives of those working the American frontier, with Abigail (Katherine Waterston) and Dyer (Casey Affleck) eking out a living on their remote New York homestead.  When their young daughter Nellie (Karina Gherasim) dies of diphtheria, Dyer and Abigail are quietly devastated; he was always a man of few words, and although it feels as if Abigail is much more talkative, much of what she has to say is presented in her diary-fuelled voiceover.  It is through this means that the grief-stricken mother offers a number of stark revelations: for one, Nellie's death has disabused Abigail of any notion of a better world to come, hence the film's title.  Abigail lives her life both in her head and through her private journal, and she places great emphasis on what is written down; more than once, she wonders if she makes any sort of appearance in the ledger in which Dyer tallies up the farm's income and expenditure.  And speaking of tallies, it isn't long before another enters the film: Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) and her husband Finney (Christopher Abbott) move into a neighbouring farm, and it isn't long before the couples become acquainted over dinner at the new tenants' place.

The confident, spirited and chatty Tallie is markedly different from Abigail, whose life of drudgery is now punctuated by brighter episodes as Tallie makes frequent visits to Dyer and Abigail's farm.  As with their wives, the two men are very different characters: the taciturn Dyer, while vaguely resentful of the time his wife spends with her new friend, always remains a polite, respectful presence, whereas Finney is a spiteful, controlling man hiding behind a veneer of respectability.  Dyer's main flaw is that he doesn't really understand his wife (or himself, for that matter), and while he hopes for another child with Abigail, he gives her time and space as she mourns Nellie; Finney, on the other hand, views his own childless home as an aberration for which Tallie must shoulder the blame.  Furthermore, while Dyer keeps careful records of his crops and animals, Finney puts similar effort into logging his wife's whereabouts, and his suspicions increase as Tallie and Abigail spend more and more time together.  It should be said that Finney's concerns aren't unfounded, as by this stage the two wives have become much more than friends, and while both women appear to have found happiness in this relationship, Tallie's husband has no intention of accommodating a fairytale ending.   

The performances are uniformly excellent, with Waterston particularly impressive as the deep-thinking Abigail, a sensitive woman largely at odds with her unforgiving surroundings; Oscar winner Affleck, who also produced the film, is careful not to distract from the two players at the heart of this story, yet his subtle supporting turn remains a low-key delight.  It is a great pity that The World to Come has slipped between the cracks opened by the various COVID-induced lockdowns; additionally, several other, recent period lesbian dramas, most of which were inferior to Fastvold's film, all received wider publicity and distribution.  It is by no means inapt to claim that The World to Come is a significantly stronger work than both The Favourite and Ammonite, and it fully deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Céline Sciamma's sublime Portrait of a Lady on FireThe World to Come's inclusion in this year's edition of Flare will hopefully reignite interest in what is a moving, lyrical and haunting work.         

Darren Arnold